In state court, William Prendergast of Pawling and other tenant farmers unsuccessfully protested claims by the Philipse family to new manorial leases likely to result in tenant farmers being dispossessed. In November 1765, the local farmers met at Samuel Towners Tavern (located at Cornwall Hill Road and Route 311) and agreed to reinstate the tenants by force, if needed. Prendergast helped to organize, assemble, and train the farmers. On November 21, 1765, they began to threaten and evict farmers who had signed “short” leases with Beverly Robinson, son-in-law of Frederick Philipse.
Under Captain Prendergast’s leadership, they marched toward New York City and grew to nearly 2,000 strong. They became known as “levelers” because the rioters declared their leases null and void and demanded full title of their properties. Several “new” lease holders were evicted and some were “rode out on rail,” others had “their arses kicked as long as we see fit.” Prendergast commanded his levelers to “pay their honest debts but not a shilling for rent.” They hoped to receive the support of the Sons of Liberty, who formed to battle taxation by the Crown without representation. They failed to gain the support, as the Sons of Liberty did not want to dilute their message in opposition to the Stamp Act.
Governor Sir Henry Moore and the weak city council did not know how to deal with the “invasion” poised along the north bank of the Harlem River. General Thomas Gage ordered all of his officers and men into protection of the fort at the southern end of Manhattan Island. On May 1, 1766, six riders from Prendergast’s Army rode in to lay the tenants’ complaints before the governor. Governor Moore received them and listened to their grievances. He assured them that he would not interfere with their disputes with the landlords. Prendergast went with his army back up river and disbanded most of his men.
The landlords, however, pressured the governor into sending 300 soldiers to restore order, disperse the rebels, and capture their leader. On May 6, 1766 a reward was issued of I00£ for the capture of William Prendergast. General Gage ordered the 28th Grenadiers to Poughkeepsie by sloop. After several skirmishes where four soldiers and three rioters were killed, Prendergast’s men made a stand at the Oblong Meeting House. The British easily won the position, and most of the settlers surrendered. Prendergast, however, had slipped away during the night. Tenant farmers continued their violence, including killing a grenadier. A company of the 46th Regiment was ordered to Claverack, NY, in Columbia County to aid Sheriff Harmanus Schuyler.
Mehetibal Wing Prendergast heard her husband was not among the prisoners and went looking for him to persuade him into giving himself up. Prendergast rode into the British camp with Mehetibal at his side to surrender. He was placed under heavy guard and transported back to New York City aboard a sloop. He was then indicted for high treason in absentia and brought back to Poughkeepsie for trial on August 6, 1766.
The next chapter of “The Heroine of Quaker Hill” will appear in the next issue of The Pawling Record on Sept. 14.
*To read the previous installment of “The Heroine of Quaker Hill,” visit PawlingRecord.org online and click on “lifestyle.”